The Steelers battled in Sunday's 27-16 loss to the New England Patriots. But the performance won't assuage concerns that follow back-to-back losses, particularly with a defense that suddenly lost its fastball -- the run stop -- the last two weeks.
"We're nowhere near where we want to be," said running back Le'Veon Bell about his 4-3 Steelers, citing one touchdown on four red-zone trips as a missed opportunity.
Something has to be tightened up when Miami's Jay Ajayi and New England's LeGarrette Blount just combined for four touchdowns and 331-plus yards over back-to-back weeks.
The Steelers' defensive game plan was bold yet understandable. They were willing to give up rushing yards in exchange for minimizing damage inflicted by Tom Brady, according to coach Mike Tomlin. Mission accomplished. Brady finished with 222 passing yards. That's a win. Rob Gronkowski got loose a few times downfield, but 93 yards and a score isn't superb by his standards. The Steelers held up better than many expected against a quarterback who entered the game with a 113.4 passer rating against Pittsburgh. That's encouraging for future weeks.
But when Pittsburgh played nickel defense against tight ends Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, the Patriots countered by running Blount, often behind the very tight ends the Steelers were trying to stop.
Blount's 127 yards and two scores on 24 carries put Pittsburgh away. This defense isn't built to withstand run-stopping issues. Even in down years, it's usually a top-10, maybe top-five against the rush. Nearly every Steelers defensive player says ad nauseam in the locker room each week: Must stop the run. The Patriots had two 100-yard rushers on Pittsburgh all-time before Sunday.
And to think the Steelers -- with a sobering eight sacks through seven games -- got decent pressure on Brady for much of the first three quarters, forcing him to convert a few third downs with his legs.
The postgame locker room was filled with defensive players not accustomed to this sort of game.
"We hold ourselves to a standard," linebacker Jarvis Jones said. "The last couple of weeks, we haven't been that defense. We have to get it corrected."
It's obvious this isn't a Roethlisberger offense right now. Nobody expected that. If it were, perhaps Tomlin would try a fourth-and-3 in the fourth quarter instead of a 54-yard Chris Boswell field-goal attempt that sailed right. Tomlin said he "took that chance," down 27-16 with 9:05 left, because he wanted to make it a one-score game and he's seen Boswell connect from that distance before.
Overall, Jones' line of 29-of-47 passing for 281 yards, one score and one interception didn't leave the Steelers uneasy. The Steelers can work with that. Both Bell and Tomlin said Jones was not the reason the Steelers lost, though Bell noted he has a chemistry with Roethlisberger that's hard to duplicate in one game.
Especially when stars Bell and Antonio Brown play like stars, the Steelers have a chance to do damage, with or without Roethlisberger. The two combined for more than 250 yards. And the offensive line looked imposing while pulling downfield and creating holes in a creatively called game by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. The Steelers eased pressure on Jones with hesitation handoffs, reverses and manageable passes in the short-to-intermediate range.
If Roethlisberger misses Week 9 at the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers can't repeat a first-half performance that netted seven points off three red zone trips. That won't beat good teams.
As the final seconds ticked and the Steelers scrambled for one more score -- another failed drive -- this looked like a team that needed a bye week. Brown, who suffered a minor quad injury, was on the sideline, holding his helmet, a scene you rarely see during a key offensive sequence.
Within a few yards from him were several key starters wearing warmups, injured for another week.
Time to regroup for a week of rest and a nine-week push that needs to be buttoned up for a playoff shot.
What's certain: The Steelers wouldn't mind seeing New England again.